There are many times where art imitates life. Many people expect the COVID-19 pandemic to be one of those times. It’s a historic event that will likely have lasting impacts that will be near impossible to avoid talking about. As a result, many TV shows will attempt to address it and talk about it when they get back on the air.
There’s been plenty said already from late-night hosts, but part of their job is to address current issues. The bigger question is how will the scripted series’ we use for escapism handle the event? The first taste of this ended up coming from a show that’s been off the air for five years: Parks and Recreation.
The comedy held a special reunion episode last week that discussed the pandemic directly. The episode showed how the characters were handling the crisis with all cast members forced to film from their own homes. The special was well-received and raised $3 million for Feeding America. With the episode’s success, there are a few things other sitcoms should take away when they decide to address the current times.
The biggest takeaway is to stay true to the characters. They’re the reason people love the show and continue to watch, so they need them to be how they were. Parks and Rec did this well and stayed within reason of how each character would act during the crisis. It would’ve been easy to have Leslie come up with some great social distancing solution that made everyone happy, but that was never what the show was. Instead, we get to see she’s hard at work and loving every bit of it.
The biggest change of character was Ben who started going stir-crazy in isolation, but fans saw that from him before. Back in Season 4, he resigned from his job with nothing lined up. With too much free time on his hands, he revived his board game, Cones of Dunshire, which returned in the special.
While the special stayed true to the characters, they didn’t get too real about the global impacts. With Leslie working for the government and Ann a nurse, it would’ve been easy to dive into the serious struggles both areas are facing at the moment. It’s best they didn’t because that’s all over the news. People want to feel good and not think about all of that for 30 minutes.
It’s clear the writers were conscious of this the most with Tom. In the series finale, Tom’s restaurant went under during an economic recession sometime between 2017 and 2025. With so many businesses having to close right now, the show would’ve hit reality on the nose had they lined up the events. Instead, they shifted to a more positive time in Tom’s life, so the biggest change was canceling half of his book tour. It’s disappointing for him but won’t upset his entire life.
It helps that Parks and Rec, as a series, is often fueled by Leslie’s enthusiasm and positivity. It makes it very easy to leave on a note that things will get better. That works well for shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Bob’s Burgers where most of the characters are likable. It makes things harder for shows like Family Guy or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where most of the cast is intentionally a nuisance. Luckily, those shows are often great as satire. After the event, it would be really easy to use the gang to make fun of the people who hoarded toilet paper, or they could join an anti-lockdown protest while hiding a cough.
Of course, Parks and Recreation has it easy in the sense they only had to do this for one episode. It’s a much more daunting task when the lasting impacts have to be carried out over the span of a season. It also creates more obstacles for dramas that already sensationalize real-life events. How are medical and cop shows supposed to not remind viewers of reality while also going over the top with their emergencies?
As the biggest event in recent history to personally affect everyone, most TV writers will feel they have to address it or feel outdated. There will surely be some that disappoint fans, but they can all play a role in helping things feel back to normal.
As the first sitcom to handle the pandemic, the Parks and Rec reunion special has some lessons for other shows.